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Black Sails, S01E02: II.; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

black sails season 1Originally aired 1 February 2014
Written by Jonathan E. Steinberg & Robert Levine
Directed by Sam Miller

Starring Toby Stephens, Hannah New, Luke Arnold, Zach McGowan, Jessica Parker Kennedy, Tom Hopper, and Mark Ryan

My rating:  ★★★ 1/2 stars

Episode features strong focus and character development.

After an inauspicious beginning with an overfilled pilot, Black Sails rebounds with this episode by centering on one main objective for all the characters—the missing schedule for the Urca de Lima. It’s an effective MacGuffin in that the quest for it focuses the energy of the plot and provides an in-depth exploration of characters and their underlying relationships and conflicts. The page itself isn’t interesting; what people do to get it is.

At the beginning of the episode, Silver holds the schedule while Max prepares to fence it to Rackham. Max makes her crucial mistake at the beginning of the episode when she reveals to Eleanor that she has a plan that will soon bring her a lot of money. She asks Eleanor to leave Nassau with her, but Eleanor balks. She doesn’t want to leave Nassau; she wants to be the merchant queen of Nassau. She likes the power she has there.

Eleanor deals confidently and arrogantly with pirates, leading her advisor, Mr. Scott, to warn her not to be overconfident with violent men. Throughout most of the first season, Mr. Scott’s role is to be the voice of reason while Eleanor ignores his advice. One of the weaknesses of the series is the character of Eleanor, who, instead of coming off as admirable and strong, too often seems irrational and obstinate. It’s a role that would be perfect for a young Barbara Stanwyck, but Hannah New doesn’t convey that kind of charisma and strength.

In this episode, we learn more about Eleanor’s relationship with Vane, who supports her when another captain doubts her authority. All Vane has to do to back up Eleanor is announce himself as Charles Vane, the Captain of the Ranger, and the other captain agrees to anything Eleanor says. Similar scenarios will play out again in future episodes.

Eleanor doesn’t appreciate this assistance. She sees Vane’s support as undermining her authority. And she has a point.  However, during a private conversation, she acts imprudently when she proceeds to emasculate Vane verbally by criticizing his skills as a captain, calling his crew vicious and undisciplined. While that is certainly their reputation, pointing this out in the manner she does lacks wisdom. Vane accuses her of withholding leads on merchant vessels for his crew to track, alleging that her reasons for this are personal. She denies this accusation with such vitriol that, regardless what she says, her reasons do seem personal.

This episode shows that other characters see Vane as an undisciplined thug and don’t credit him with much intelligence. Certainly, Eleanor, Flint, and even Vane’s quartermaster, Rackham, think they are smarter than he is. And his actions, on the surface, support that assessment. However, he does something in this episode that too often Eleanor and Flint fail to do. He listens. Rackham advises Vane to pursue the schedule to make up for their dwindling leads. Vane adopts this course of action, draining the Ranger’s reserve funds in an attempt to buy it from Silver, with Max acting as a go-between. Sure, he tries to strangle Max a little while making the deal, but he is a violent thug after all. And he does not like dealing with Max because of their personal conflict over Eleanor’s affections. However, the ability of Vane to put his ego aside and change his course will prove crucial in the future.

Meanwhile, together, Billy, Gates, and Flint figure out that Silver must have the schedule. But Silver slips away from them. Gates then discovers and reveals to Flint that Silver is using a prostitute to broker the deal to sell the schedule to Vane. Flint tells Eleanor about the Urca de Lima treasure and his plan to use it to revitalize Nassau as a legitimate colony, and she supports his vision. When he conveys that the schedule is being brokered by a prostitute, Eleanor figures out that Max has the schedule. She remembers the earlier conversation when Max talked about a plan that would bring her a lot of money and allow her to start anew away from Nassau.

That’s when Eleanor betrays Max. She brings Flint, Gates, and Billy to the brothel to procure the schedule by any means necessary should her persuasion of Max fail. Max is forced to reveal the location where the exchange between Vane and Silver will take place, knowing that Vane will punish her for revealing this information but having no choice with Flint, Gates, and Billy willing to torture her to get information.

The climax of the episode occurs when Flint’s men interrupt the exchange at a rocky section of the island. Using a place covered by large boulders as a setting for the fight scene is a good choice, having the potential for interesting chases and hiding places. However, the finished scene looks cheap, as if it was filmed on a set, using darkness to hide the fakeness of the scenery. During the fight, Rackham falls into the water, losing the entirety of the Ranger’s reserve fund, and Silver, having memorized the schedule, burns it, ensuring his own survival, if not getting the payoff he desired.

Flint, now with possession of Silver and the knowledge in his head, and having secured his position as captain, leaves his reveling crew to head to the interior of the island. There, he enters a cozy, little house where an unknown woman tells him to take off his boots. When she goes to fetch him tea, he collapses in the doorway with the utter weariness of the struggle and the violence of his life outside the door. We don’t know yet who this woman is—Flint’s wife or his girlfriend or someone else entirely—but their arrangement is clearly a domestic one, one that stands in stark contrast to the wildness of Nassau. In this house, with this woman, Flint can drop the persona he projects to the outside world.

What this episode does well is craft scenes of conflict that reveal character—Vane’s attempting to help Eleanor, who rejects his aid; Eleanor’s betraying Max to advance Flint’s goals; and Flint’s finally allowing himself to be overcome by the weight of his battles, both external and internal. This episode gives the viewers the sense that these characters are people with hopes and fears and affections, instead of servants of the plot.

The focus on the schedule gives the episode the structure that was missing from the pilot, bringing all the disparate storylines to center on a single object. The destruction of the schedule brings closure to the episode. Future episodes will struggle to recapture this sense of unity.

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